It should be as easy as riding a bike! Certainly, if we are talking about the type of cycling you did as a child, it might well be true. However, when it comes to endurance cycling, there are encyclopedia-type manuals which will open the floodgates of cycling dynamics you've maybe never thought of.
As easy as it sounds, take a moment and think about what it takes to make that bike move forward. Before pressure is even applied to the pedal, your head has to have an idea of what it is about to accomplish. Are we just pushing down on the pedal until the bottom arc of the pedal stroke and then the other foot takes over and carries the momentum forward? Well, if we're back in elementary school and we’re heading to a 7-Eleven for some Charleston Chew candy bars, you might be right. If we're talking about performance cycling, this process is exactly that; elementary.
Pedaling is really what makes us "go" on a bike, but the way we pedal needs some refinement if we're to sustain consistent power over miles and miles. It's also worth noting that there are different pedaling methods for different types of riding.
Flat Smooth Road
You're really lucky here because without gravity working heavily against you, keeping an efficient pedal stroke around 80 to 90 rpm (revolutions per minute) is quite easy.
Whether you're on the asphalt or the dirt, hills require a varied cadence, measured in rpm. The overall goal is to maintain a relatively consistent power output by varying your cadence and gear selection. So when you start moving uphill and your cadence drops below 70 rpm, you can select an easier gear to boost your rpm back to something less grinding.
Grinding should be avoided in an endurance event as it really adds extreme torque to your body and can cause excessive strain, exhausting muscles which need to be a bit more fresh later in the ride.
If you're bold enough, you'll tackle some steep grades over 10 percent. Usually, even the most friendly gear ratios will be exhausted by this point and you'll be grinding up a hill near 55 rpm or lower. Even this type of cycling can be efficient, trained for and fine-tuned.
Going downhill on the asphalt can be terrifying, as speeds often creep upward of 50 mph. The same set of fears creep up when on gravel roads or technical, rocky descents. How you decide to pedal while moving downhill (if you even can) will impact how you can maneuver your body and center of gravity while handling corners.
Now that you understand there are nearly a dozen different scenarios that require different types of pedal technique, what should you do?
For one, it all depends on the terrain of your event or even where you train regularly. Someone who is always in the mountains would like to race with a pistol while riding flat for 100 miles since it would shorten the mental anguish and boredom.
On the other hand, when Floridians are met with events that cover over 1,500 feet in elevation their palms start sweating, the phone is almost dialing Mom for some love and maybe they sleep with their favorite stuffed animal the night before the event.
The bottom line, you can train for what is ahead relatively easily and you don't have to be defeated by your terrain before you even start.
Varied Power and Varied RPM
Now that pedaling has become 100 percent more complicated than that one time when you were five and learned to bike with training wheels, how exactly do we apply power and rpm to the pedals to maximize efficiency?
Whether you live in a flat environment or a mountainous environment, there is always an indoor trainer to equalize the playing field. If you can't find flat roads and need to spend hours streamline or aero on your time trial bike, or your biggest mountain is an overpass.
The trainer can help replicate nearly any environment your legs will encounter. I prefer smart trainers like the Wahoo Kickr since a standard resistance trainer still has limits when it comes to very low rpm and high power efforts.
When the resistance gets tough and the legs start to get that little hint of a burn, most Floridian-type riders will immediately shift to an easier gear and boost their rpm, lowering the load on their legs.
I would argue that if you plan to increase your efficiency and durability on any terrain, you learn to deal with heavy leg less than 50 rpm grinders and vo2 max type 120 rpm efforts. You must train the extremes!
I highly recommend spending two weeks watching Le Tour De France and then IRONMAN Kona and then Cape Epic. While you'll really be entertained, it'll also be worth noting the different pedaling style each type of rider will use.
While a pure cyclist will typically spend their time at race effort north of 90 rpm on flat ground, an IRONMAN type triathlete should be a bit lower, maybe 85 rpm. Finally, a mountain biker will need all ranges, even higher than 100 for sustained periods. The way you vary your power and rpm will greatly impact your bodies ability to sustain race effort and even long training sessions.
As a professional triathlete, I definitely find it less taxing to have raced with an average rpm of 82 to 88 for IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 distance races. When I execute any sort of time trial, I'll spend more time at 90 to 95 rpm. However, my power output is usually 115 percent so it requires both high effort and high rpm.
When I'm coaching athletes for general season bike-fitness, I mix in these types of sessions.
General aerobic training is usually one to four hours with cadence 80 to 90 rpm. Usually, I'll mix in some individual leg drills as well for beginners who find their pedal stroke has a "dead spot" over the top of the pedal stroke.
Low RPM Work
Intervals can range between 5 to 20 minutes and usually involve power production below and above threshold or at sustained race efforts. I prefer athletes do these on long climbs. However, this is also where an indoor trainer works great since with such high-power and on flat ground, the athlete would always max out gearing and still only manage 70 to 75 rpm. This really builds the prime movers, engages the core and smoothes out the pedal stroke since the push-pull opposition with each leg is fully engaged.
Usually, my glutes and lower back are pretty sore too so it's really building durability. A smart trainer allows you to dial in a "set power" and allows the rider to pedal at any rpm they choose.
Higher RPM Work
During some of these sessions, I would almost rather throw my bike off a cliff or complete a 20 minute time trial instead of burning out at 105 to 120 rpm.
Intervals can be from 1 to 15 minutes at a time and man, they really stress the body in a new way. Additionally, the power is quite low, so the muscles are taxed more aerobically, rather than with pure torque. Power output is usually 50 to 60 percent FTP and the goal is to stabilize your body.
The first few sessions will have an athlete bouncing in the saddle, cursing their coach. With practice, this will be quite smooth and less daunting. I've had races where I've been so thankful for this training because IRONMAN Austria has some long descents where you will pedal at 85 percent FTP at 105-plus rpm in order to maximize speed.
Everyone works hard on the uphill and you can often earn valuable seconds while boosting 5 mph downhill with some bursts of cadence-filled power.
Most coaches will have this term in their vocabulary and it means without thinking too much, you settle into a comfortable cadence you don't really have to think about. It just happens on its own.
The sweet spot is a balance of power and rpm that is most efficient for you as a rider, given the race you're taking on. For some, this is 82 rpm and other, it's 88.
Overall, it depends on your background, your style and your comfort level. For long distance races, this is a place you'll need to make friends with, as it can go on and on...and on.
I think about pedaling in ovals rather than circles because of the top and bottom of a circle are more of a dead-spot as far as power production is concerned. However, the more you keep your heel down over the top of the pedal stroke, the earlier you can apply that power to the pedal.